Every election time one is reminded of the exciting prospect of South Africa’s transition to a constitutional democracy in 1994. Broad political inclusivity, it was thought, would become a panacea for most of the country’s sociopolitical ills, including those injustices created by a suppressive past. Now, 25 years on, that dream surely lies mostly shattered, despite futile attempts amplified by election manifestos proclaiming that it can be revived by one or other political party or charismatic leader.
Perhaps we have been blinded to the flaws of democracy itself, outlined by its founder, Greek philosopher Plato, in his classic work The Republic – which essentially concludes that it is little more than the best of what there is. A scary summary can be found in this article describing the disaster of democracy. Even more frightening is an extrapolation of those postulates to the current state of the world, particularly South Africa, and what could be the outcome in the years ahead. Even at its best, democracy creates a very limited degree of political inclusivity, and even less socially and economically.
It is one of the most vexing subjects humanity has faced throughout its existence, and I’m going to leave it there for the ‘slimkop’ among us – the analysts who so frequently pervade our screens to voice their often inconsequential theories.
What is critical is that every vote-casting citizen realise that after their ballot papers have been dropped into the box, their work – and their involvement – has just begun.
Inclusivity is certainly deserving of the attention given at different levels and forums in society globally. The key problem is that the term itself is subject to many interpretations and misconceptions. An overwhelming majority see it, and indeed freedom itself, as possession of wealth, land and purchasing power; others as access to resources and opportunities; and others again as a dispensation created by a system and centralised bureaucracy. The latter then exclude themselves by waiting to be included by the system and the establishment.
There is an element of truth in all of those views, but they are strongly muted by seeing inclusivity as being, in essence, about involvement, specifically individual involvement. Then it becomes clear that inclusivity is far more greatly determined by individual behaviour and by citizens themselves than by governments and the establishment. It is a thought explicitly captured in my favourite maxim that ‘Our true value lies in our capacity to make a contribution to others’. And the most significant part of that capacity lies in our willingness to act, whether by simply constantly exploring the difference we can make to others’ lives or by becoming an activist dedicated to some worthy cause.
I have written frequently that the most promising and effective way of giving inclusivity a significant boost is through companies. They are, and always have been, the most inclusive activities in society, which becomes clear when one sees them as a collective of relationships and not the standard institutional and money perspective. In essence, they are little more than people serving people within the confines of meeting the legitimate expectations of all involved.
Few things can be more profitable and sustainable than a company consistently exploring the contribution it can make to its customers and the difference it can make in their lives.
This is solidly cemented by the members of that company understanding their role as a common purpose of customer care and service, and ensuring mutual support for each other in that pursuit, whether it is shareholder towards labour; or executive towards the community. Sadly, the conventional view is still simply one of extracting maximum short-term self-gain, automatically creating a marginalisation of stakeholders that is totally counterintuitive to inclusivity and enthusiastic involvement.
The shareholder value model of the 1980s (‘the world’s dumbest idea’) has been an unfortunate setback in what could have been an evolutionary process of redefining companies to a more inclusive view. It is still pervasive despite the many counter proposals such as the triple bottom line, the stakeholder view, and The King Code.
American investment mogul Larry Fink said in his most recent letter to CEOs that within the next five years all investors will measure a company’s impact on society, government, and the environment. It is a small but not insignificant step when investors see the broader, more inclusive role of companies as a key criterion for investment more than their simple earnings potential. But I still believe the biggest breakthrough in South Africa can come from labour. Until it sees its primary role as involvement in companies as its contribution to a collective serving customers specifically, and the community generally, their behaviour will remain inflexible, combative and counterproductive to inclusivity.
This may have been a response to the shareholder autocracy of the past few decades, but it has become entrenched as a key approach of organised labour which is missing out on changing the business world as a more inclusive feature of society. In its latest Global Trust survey, global communications firm Edelman points out the most significant shift of the past year has been the increase in trust between employer and employee – with the latter “ready and willing to trust their employers, but the trust must be earned through more than ‘business as usual.’” It is a very positive sign of growing cohesion between employer and employee: one that is clearly absent from the South African environment.
Inclusivity can be markedly enhanced through a trusting relationship between employer and worker, and it can be achieved in a number of ways:
- Allegiance to a common purpose of service to the customer
- Shifting the focus away from profit to value-added (or wealth created) in its three dimensions of transformation, measurement and intent or behaviour
- Teaching staff about the relationship perspective of companies and their ‘community serving’ nature
- Regularly sharing financial information with staff and others in a stakeholder format such as the ‘Contribution Account©‘, and
- Introducing flexible pay systems such as ‘fortune sharing‘ after agreeing to a legitimate share of wealth creation for the different stakeholders.
A cohesive, trusting and involved relationship between employer and employee can go much further than all of the centralised attempts at regulating the labour environment. We boast of having one of the most advanced labour law dispensations in the world, yet have to admit that we also have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. No one seems willing to connect those dots.
Centralised power has a tendency to create more power for itself in the name of empowering the multitudes, leaving the latter with fewer choices – and thus more disempowered. This is counterintuitive to democracy itself, which aims at diffusing power, not concentrating it.
Perhaps it is time to review the role of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) and other autocratic institutions, with their messy meddling from the top in a relationship between people in a collective on the ground who share many personal and societal concerns.